Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
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Tragic Sabriel prequel slow to start but worth the wait.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers can compare Garth Nix's magical world of the Charter versus Free Magic with other fantasy worlds where magic is used for good or evil. They can also look at how Nix sets up the afterlife and ways to the afterlife in Clariel and The Abhorsen Trilogy. Also of note: There's much new vocabulary to be gained here. Keep the dictionary handy for fun words such as "mummery" and "sally port" and terms describing pieces of very old fighting costumes.

Positive Messages

"Does the path choose the walker or the walker the path?" The central struggle of characters involves what choices we make and why. What impact do they have on others? How do we correct mistakes? How do our mistakes form who we are?

Positive Role Models & Representations

Clariel is a tragic figure who often means well but can't turn around her bad decisions. She realizes too late that seeking revenge by any means necessary and achieving it is a hollow victory and can lead to unintended bad consequences. Her friend Belatiel, by comparison, is a more heroic figure with high ideals. He starts out not seeming very skillful and grows into his role by the end of the book.

Violence

There are long breaks between violent scenes, but when the few of them hit, they're quite bloody. Two characters are beheaded (in one case it's a particularly sad death of someone close to Clariel; in the other, a frightening magical creature twists a head off a person's shoulders), characters are run through with talons and swords, there's another sad death by arrow, and there's a serious injury from an arrow and another from a dagger. There's talk of Belatiel's parents' deaths in the past, drowned when he was young, and talk of a bad guy killing day laborers for fun. A character is kidnapped and imprisoned. Talk of the Abhorsen's primary job, which is to walk into death and get rid of dangerous magical creatures.

Sex

Two mentions that Clariel "chose to lie with a man," as well as talk of her not being interested in men or women.

Language

One "bitches."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Wine shows up on a couple of occasions, with Clariel, age 17, refusing once and accepting another time.

 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Garth Nix's Clariel is a prequel to the popular Abhorsen trilogy about a magical world where people called Abhorsens fight evil "Free Magic" and wield bells that help them walk in death and return to the living. You can read Clariel before Sabriel, the first book in the trilogy, and not be too confused. Despite the macabre themes, violence consists of only a few rather bloody skirmishes -- some characters lose heads and get run through with swords and talons of some scary magical creatures. There are a few sad deaths. Other mature content consists of a glass of wine drunk by 17-year-old Clariel and a couple mentions that she "chose to lie with a man" with only that amount of detail. As in Nix's previous books, he presents a fantasy world that will challenge teen readers. Expect to learn some new vocabulary while rooting for the complex tragic character at the center of the story.

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What's the story?

Clariel didn't ask to move to the city of Belisaere. She was perfectly happy living in a small town with her family. She escaped to the woods often to hunt and lead as solitary a life as possible. But her mother, a master goldsmith and a cousin to the king, decided it was time to move her family up in the world. Now Clariel finds herself stuck in a crowded city, dressed up in fancy robes, and expected to learn how to serve some weird drink they call tea. And every afternoon she's sent to learn more about magic with the town's Charter Mage, Magister Kargrin. Kargrin isn't surprised that Clariel knows so little about Charter Magic. In the city it's completely out of fashion. But he's surprised to find Clariel so full of raw magical power. A power that any Free Magic creature would like to control and possess. Knowing how much Clariel wants to escape the city, Kargrin offers her the money to do it, in exchange for helping him find a Free Magic creature corrupting the city. Sure enough, the creature is lured by Clariel's raw power. Before it's captured, Clariel comes too close to the creature, and the temptation of Free Magic is difficult to ignore.

Is it any good?

Fans of the Abhorsen trilogy have been waiting a long time for CLARIEL, with high expectations; Garth Nix is slow to meet them but does come around in the end. Stick with it. If you're getting impatient for glimpses of the Abhorsen's house or a visit with Mogget the sly, sardonic cat, skim the bits about Clariel in school or the squabbling with her parents. 

Clariel is slowest when Nix gets caught up in descriptions of the palace, the Charter Mage's house, and the city. The tension of the story is very brief in the first half but jarring with a truly gnarly Free Magic creature on the loose. Then it builds very diligently in the second half as Clariel's difficult choices emerge. It's a long fuse to a very explosive, tragic, and satisfying ending.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Clariel and other tragic characters. Were you rooting for Clariel throughout the book? At what point in her decision-making did she go from possible hero to a tragic figure? Is there any going back for her?

  • What other tragic characters in literature can you think of? Who is your favorite and why?

  • Have you read Sabriel and the rest of the Abhorsen trilogy? If not, will you pick it up after reading Clariel?

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